Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Brilliant Winter Kick-off at Broadway Rose

Malia Tippets, Jared Mack, Joe Theissen, Tim Blough, Sarah Maines, 
Jade Tate, Jackson Wells, and Jeffrey Childs. Photo by Sam Ortega

By Tina Arth

I love the holiday season, but the avalanche of shows around the beginning of December can be a bit overwhelming. Broadway Rose, not surprisingly, hit just the right note by opening A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol Thanksgiving weekend, at least a week ahead of the rest of the crowd. More importantly, from a pack of five in recent years, theirs is the most charming, touching, and musically thrilling (some of the harmonies gave me chills!) take on the “Radio Christmas Carol” genre I’ve seen – with no sacrifice in the quality of the comedy. The collaboration between director Dan Murphy and musical director Jeffrey Childs creates a seamless flow between the show’s musical, dramatic, and comic elements – with some unexpected twists that keep the audience on its toes.

It’s Christmas Eve, 1943, and the Feddington Players are more than a little cranky about their move from NYC to a hole-in-the-wall studio in Newark, NJ for their rendition of A Christmas Carol. The plumbing is loud, the signal weak, and the electrical system temperamental. Starring in the title role of Scrooge is veteran actor (but radio newbie) William St. Claire, who is not thrilled with the current trajectory of his career and has a woefully inadequate understanding of the different demands of radio (e.g., no need for costumes, much less costume changes!). Adding to the general malaise, the rest of the cast learns before his arrival that St. Claire has lost a son in the skies above WWII France.  However, the show must go on, and even when St. Claire’s heart-wrenching on-air breakdown drives it off the rails the rest of the cast’s “can-do” attitude brings it to a hilarious (but very bizarre) conclusion. Without giving too much away, let us just say that it’s the only time I’ve seen Tiny Tim and the Lindbergh Baby in such close proximity…

Tim Blough (as St. Claire) is an experienced and deft actor whose resonant voice and dignified affect stand in stark contrast to the frequently wacky performances of his cast mates. Much of the show’s emotional content comes from his gradual evolution from Scrooge to grieving father, done so smoothly that I really didn’t know what was happening until he neared his personal climax. The rest of the cast members offer multidimensional portraits of ordinary people (well, ordinary show people) carrying on in the midst of the grim realities of war. Jade Tate is hilarious as Sally Simpson, the living embodiment of Rosie the Riveter, and her lightning-fast transitions playing all of Bob Cratchit’s daughters are a wonder to behold. With little more than a few lines in Hebrew, Jared Mack uses his character, Cholly Butts, to gently remind us that Jews, even in America, have a special connection to the tragic events in Europe. I was impressed but confused by the skillful musical direction from “Toots Navarre” – until I read the program at intermission and realized that real-life musical director Jeffrey Childs, one of the best of the best of the local music men, had stepped downstage to let the audience watch him work his magic.

The 18 musical numbers are a nice mix of classic carols and new songs written for the show –delivered with a sly confession that the WOV Radio Network can’t pay royalties, so they have to rely on new material and songs in the public domain. Malia Tippets’ lively “That Cute Little Elf” starts the show with comic flare, and Sarah Maines’ haunting “Quiet Night” closes the show on a somber note that brings home the reality of war, especially poignant with the lovely monologue by Foley artist Buzz Crenshaw (William Shindler). The lush ensemble arrangements allow the entire cast to shine, and Mack’s lead on “All Through the Night” gave me goose bumps.

Robert Vaughan’s detailed scenic design and Sarah Marguier’s authentic costuming give the show period authenticity, immediately transporting the audience back 76 years and immersing us in the spirit of a tragic but hopeful era – so very different from our own in superficial ways, and so completely alike in the things that matter.

This show will sell out quickly (many performances are already full) – get your tickets asap for what may turn out to be the best show of the season!

A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, December 23d.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Mighty Inherit the Wind Blows at Lakewood

Ian Goodrich, Olivia Weiss, Jim Vadala, and Allen Nause.
Photo by Triumph Photography.

By Tina Arth

November 6, 2018 – what better day to reflect on a play that explores a time when American history was roiled by the 6-way collision of science, fundamentalist religion, education, politics, law, and the press? Lakewood Theatre Company’s production of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s brilliant Inherit the Wind, first produced in 1955 as a direct reaction to the McCarthy hearings, propels us back to a time and place that, until recently, we thought we had left behind.

The play tells the semi-fictional story of Bertram Cates, a teacher in Hillsboro, Tennessee who is on trial for the crime of teaching evolutionary theory to his students.  While it is based on actual historic events (1925’s famous Scopes trial, in Dayton Tennessee) the names have been changed and the story modified to more explicitly make its point about the McCarthy era’s relentless attempts to suppress free speech, thought, and a free press.  Appearing for the defense and prosecution are well-known lawyers Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow) and Matthew Harrison Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan), brought in to raise the trial to national attention as one of a handful of cases labeled a “trial of the century.” The drama is heightened by the presence of Cates’ girlfriend, fellow teacher Rachel Brown, whose father Jeremiah Brown is the heartlessly stern reverend of the local fundamentalist church. The trial ends with a Pyrrhic victory for Bryan – Cates is convicted, but in the process Darrow demolishes Brady’s arguments and sets the stage to move the debate to a national audience on appeal, while Rachel rejects her father’s blindly rigid faith and chooses to align her self squarely in the Cates camp.

The leading lawyers provide dream roles for serious actors, and director Antonio Sonera could not have chosen better than Allen Nause (Drummond) and Todd Van Voris (Brady) to fill these giant shoes. The contrast between Nause’s restrained, fiercely sardonic expression of agnosticism and the crowd-pleasing, bombastic histrionics of Van Voris’ creationist rants drives the story to its inevitable conclusion. Nause uses comic timing as a weapon to disembowel his adversary’s biblical literalism, and Van Voris smoothly injects into his absolute certainty a few moments of thinly veiled doubt when confronted with Reverend Brown’s unconscionably harsh brand of Christianity.

Another key battle in the show is between Rachel and her father. While David Sikking’s take on Reverend Brown could have been even fierier, Olivia Weiss’ approach as Rachel is heartbreaking, and vividly illustrates the cruelty of her father’s harsh world-view. The ensemble, especially when singing (there are a surprising number of hymns interspersed throughout the show), augments the picture by demonstrating Brown’s almost hypnotic power over many in the crowd. While the leads demand most of the audience’s attention, it is fascinating to watch the reactions of individual ensemble members at key moments as they respond to Brown, Brady, and Drummond’s arguments with varying degrees of blind faith and cautious hints of dissent.

John Gerth’s scenic design is really quite stunning. The use of rear projection for the town of Hillsboro, with a rustic foreground that can serve as a jail, town square, or courtroom by just shifting a few pieces of furniture, easily enables the audience to follow shifts in locale without time lost to extensive set changes – the most complex shift, erecting bleachers for the jury, happily happens at intermission.

While it would be unduly na├»ve to think that conflicts between religious faith and scientific logic will ever find a completely happy middle ground, it is still shocking in 2018 to see how little progress has been made in some large segments of American society. As Drummond says, with eerily prophetic accuracy, “You don’t suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you?” For this reason alone, Inherit the Wind has earned its iconic place in theater – but Sonera’s staging of the show at Lakewood is rife with fine performances, humor, and subtle touches that make it fine theater independent of the message.

Inherit the Wind is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, December 9th.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Dearly Departed – More Giggles Than Grief…

Lonnie Duran, Krista Gardner, and Jeff Ekdahl

By Tina Arth

Losing the clan’s paterfamilias is generally regarded as something to mourn, but as Mask & Mirror Community Theatre’s current production of David Bottrell and Jessie Jones’ Dearly Departed illustrates, “it ain’t necessarily so.” The show fits neatly into the mold of southern comedy often seen in community theater productions, and generally included once per season at Mask & Mirror. True to type, it’s loaded with eccentric characters, big hair, down-home accents, and sit-com like one-liners – but this one is a bit more fun, and much funnier, because it’s edgier and less overtly stereotypical than others from the genre that I’ve seen.  Kudos to director Rick Hoover for setting some limits on his cast, averting the kind over-the-top cheap performances that so often dilute a script’s inherent wit.

The story begins with the sudden demise of Bud Turpin, the seriously red-necked patriarch of a rural southern clan – wife Raynelle, sons Ray Bud and Junior, daughter Delightful, Bud’s sister Marguerite, and nephew Royce. From Bud’s demise through his burial, we watch the family and an unusually eclectic array friends and relations as they expose the universal bonds of love, community, family ties and humor of this dysfunctional horde. Raynelle quickly makes it clear to the preacher that she wants no whitewashed eulogy for a man she can only describe as “mean and surly” (in fact, that’s what she wants on his tombstone). The sons are at each others’ throats, Delightful is an obsessive eater – add in financial problems, adultery, miscarriages, sloth, and real Bible Belt fundamentalism – clearly, the story could go very dark, but the authors have chosen to offer a much lighter vision.

Pat Romans plays Raynelle with honesty and directness that belies any stereotypes about born again Christians – audiences are just not expecting that level of casual contempt from the newly-bereaved, but Romans makes it clear that we’ll have to look elsewhere for hypocrisy (or even a modicum of tact). The mantle of ostentatious grief falls on the shoulders of Francine Raften, a control freak who delivers a classic Bible-thumping dose of rigid morality. Two very solid performances come from Lonnie Duran and Kira Smolev (Ray Bud and Lucille), who create a believable, hard-working, sensible couple that contrasts neatly with the hapless Junior (Jeff Ekdahl) and his wife Suzanne (Shannon Coffin), a shallow harridan with anger issues and a penchant for Dairy Queen who redeems herself at the end with a lovely funeral hymn.

Krista Gardner is a hoot as Delightful – like Mr. Goldstone in Gypsy, she has almost no lines but eats continuously (corn dogs are a particular favorite). Gardner’s magically swift hands manage to snatch food from other cast members with lightning speed, and she is hilariously deadpan throughout. Ted Schroeder’s “Royce” could be found in any family – Schroeder plays aimless and shiftless to perfection, with a nearly unbreachable emotional wall to protect him from Marguerite’s maternal manipulation. We don’t see much of John Knowles as the Reverend Hooker – he spends much of his biggest scene offstage, dealing with intestinal issues – but when he appears he definitely steals the show.

The sets are minimal, which is a real blessing in a show with so many scene changes in Act I, and the costuming absolutely appropriate to the time, diversity of the characters, and place (wherever that might be – we are told only that we are below the Mason-Dixon line). The brief role of Bud Turpin is filled with a different local personality for each performance, which adds a little more fun to the evening.

While Dearly Departed is being performed in a church and is generally family-friendly, there are a few situations that might not be appropriate for younger children (assuming they are old enough to figure out what’s going on) or people with particularly delicate sensibilities. However, that leaves a lot of folks who will really enjoy an evening with the Turpins!

Mask & Mirror’s Dearly Departed runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm through November 18th at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.